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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939)


Novelist, poet, literary critic, editor, one of the founding fathers of English Modernism. Ford published over eighty books. A frequent theme was the conflict between traditional British values and those of modern industrial society. Ford was involved with a number of women, including the novelist Jean Rhys, who described their unhappy relationship in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie.

"But for the judging of contemporary literature the only test is one's personal taste. If you much like a new book, you must call it literature even though you find no other soul to agree with you, and if you dislike a book you must declare that it is not literature though a million voices should shout you that you are wrong. The ultimate decision will be made by Time." (in The March of Literature, 1939)

Ford Madox Ford was born Ford Madox Hueffer in Merton, Surrey. His father was an author and the music editor of The Times, his grandfather was the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown, and his uncle William Michel Rossetti. Ford's literary-artistic milieu included Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, Algernon Swinburne, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Morris. Partly because of family connections in Germany and France, Ford traveled on the Continent several times in his youth. He was educated at the Praetorius School at Folkstone. When his father died, the family moved to London. Ford continued his education at University College School, but he never went to college. However, he spoke fluent French and German, some Italian and Flemish, and had good knowledge of Greek and Latin. At the age of nineteen he converted to Catholicism

Ford's first book was The Brown Owl (1891), a fairy tale, which was illustrated by his grandfather. Ford was just 18 when the book was published. In 1894 Ford married Elsie Martindale. The marriage was unhappy and broke up in 1908, but Ford never divorced her. According to some sources, he had nearly twenty major relationships with women over the course of his lifetime. Ford was not especially handsome but looked very ordinary-he was fat, had a mustache and blond hair. He smoke Gauloises and had bad teeth. His memory was exceptional. He could quote long passages from classics and he once started a French translation of his work without a copy of the book or a note. Scandals around Ford-he an affair with his wife's sister-the social ostracism, ill-health, and financial anxiety led eventually to a nervous breakdown in 1904.

"Only two classes of books are of universal appeal: the very best and the very worst," Ford wrote in Joseph Conrad (1924). He had met the author in the late 1890s and collaborated with him on The Inheritors (1901) and Romance (1903). Conrad's use of mediating narrators impressed Ford deeply. Later he used the technique in The Good Soldier. The Soul of London (1905) was an experimental work, in which Ford tried to capture the spirit of the metropolis through impressionistic perceptions. Ford's first major work, the Fifth Queen trilogy, appeared in 1906-08. It was based on the life of Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII.

In 1908 Ford launched the English Review, which attracted such contributors as Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells, John Galsworthy, Henry James, and Anatole France. Ford lost control of the Review in 1910, a time of crisis in his life, which was associated with his romance with the writer Violet Hunt. In the same year Ford was ordered to pay his wife funds for the support of their two daughters. When he refused he was sent to Brixton prison for eight days.

At the age of forty-two, Ford published The Good Soldier, which is generally considered his his masterpiece. Written in the style of continental writers such as Zola and de Maupassant, this work prompted the poet John Rodker to remark that it was "the finest French novel in the English language." The story about adultery and deceit revolves around two couples, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, and their two American friends, John and Florence Dowell, who meet at the German spa town of Nauheim, in 1904. Ford presents the story through the mind of John Dowell, who recounts in 1913 the events of their life, Florence's affair with Edward, the "good soldier," and her subsequent suicide. Through Dowell's non-chronological narrative Ford attempts to recreate real thoughts. "You may well ask why I write. And yet my reasons are quite many. For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed for the the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unknown heirs or of generation infinitely remote; or, if you please, just to get the sight out of their heads." (from The Good Soldier) Dowell himself is incapable of reading other people's emotions, and thus he fails to realize that his friend Edward is having an affair with his wife. This makes him also an unreliable narrator; the reader cannot trust his ability to perceive what is truly going on. 

Ford's innovative technique and experimentation foresaw the whole modernist movement and such works as Samuel Beckett's Molloy (1951) and J.M. Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country (1977). The Good Soldier was also Ford's own favorite of his early books. Originally it was entitled "The Saddest Story". Ford claimed that it was based on a true story. Before writing it he had noted that he had "never really tried to put into any novel of mine all that I knew about writing."

During World War I Ford served as a lieutenant in the Welch Regiment. Ford wrote the poem 'Antwerp' which T.S. Eliot considered the only good poem he'd met with on the subject of war. During the Battle of the Somme in 1916 Ford was shell-shocked and in 1917 he was invalided home. Ford's war experiences inspired some of his poetry and propaganda pieces.

After the war Ford lived in isolation in the country for a time. He then became bored and moved with the Australian painter Stella Bowen to France. They lived in a small cottage on the boulevard Arago between number 65 and the tennis courts at number 69, where Hemingway and Pound played tennis. The sound of the guillotine from the nearby Santé prison added its own tone to his famous parties. To have time for his own writing, Ford rented a small studio at Guermantes-près-Lagny. 

In the late 1923 or early 1924, Ford and Stella were joined in he cottage by Jean Rhys, whose husband Jean Lenglet had been arrested in 1924, convicted for embezzlement, and extradicted from France. All four involved in the Ford-Rhys affair, which broke their marriages, wrote books about it. After sepataring from Stella, Ford settled into a spacious studio on rue  Notre-Dame-des-Champs. In 1928 he took a flaton rue de Vaugirard. When he left Paris for six months in 1929, he turned over this apartment to Caroline Gordon, his former secretary, and her poet-husband, Allen Tate.

While in Paris, Ford founded The Transatlantic Review, proving once again his sharp instinct in discovering and promoting important new writers. Hemingway was his deputy editor; he portrayed Ford as the party-giving Henry Braddocks in The Sun Also Rises (1926). They published works by Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings and Jean Rhys. In 1919 Ford changed his name from Ford Madox Hueffer to Ford Madox Ford. In 1925 his lover, Violet Hunt, was legally restrained from describing herself as Ford's wife.

Rhys appeared as Lola Porter, a Creole character who knows voodoo, in When the Wicked Man (1931); she is also called a "vampire Carmen," but her potrayal is not entirely negative. Rhys once described Ford as "a down to earth, business-like snob". At one point of their relationship she promised to show him exotic sexual tricks she had learned but Ford was not interested, he was engaged in writing the Tietjens Tetralogy. Her own account of the affair Rhys gave in Quartet (1928) and After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931). In addition, Stella published a book of memoir, Drawn from Life (1940), in which Rhys is never mentioned by name. Jean Lenglet, wanting to score with his wife, wrote a prison novel, Sous les verrous, which Rhys translated into English under the title Barred (1932). After their separation, Lenglet worked for a period in odd jobs here and there, while not supporting himself as a street musician.

His ironic view of the British society Ford expressed in No More Parades (1925), in which he stated: "No more hope, no more glory, not for the nation, not for the world I dare say, no more parades." Faithful to the psychological realism of the great French novelists, Ford continued to explore the vagaries of the mind in his later books too, among them When the Wicked Man, in which the protagonist is an alcoholic, who tries to convince himself that his drinking is not a prroblem.

Ford's most ambitious work, the four-volume novel Parade's End, came out between the years 1924 and 1928. W.H. Auden wrote that "there are not many English novels which deserve to be called great: Parade's End is one of them." The central character is Christopher Tietjens, whose struggle of a public and personal survival is pictured with impressionistic technique. Tietjens's wife is unfaithful, he is betrayed by friends, and his deepest values are threatened. In A Man Could Stand Up (1926) and The Last Post (1928) Tietjens frees himself from the outdated ethical values and tries to make a separate peace with the world. The final volume stands apart from the rest of the series. "I do not like the book and have never liked it and always intended the series to end with A Man Could Stand Up," Ford himself wrote to his agent in the summer of 1930. The Last Post was omitted by Graham Greene from the Bodley Head edition of the work.

Although Ford has not been regarded as a true Imagist poet, he participated in their anthology in 1930. However, his Impressionist ideas had inluenced Ezra Pound, a central member of the movement. The last decade of Ford's life was divided mainly between the U.S. and southern France. Sometimes he called himself a "Franco-American writer" but he never saw Grand Canyon, Niagara, Yellowstone, or Texas and the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. (Ford Madox Ford and America, edited by Sara Haslam and Seamus O'Malley, 2012, pp. 15-16)  In his childhood he had idolized Buffalo Bill. The Heart of the Country (1906) was dedicated to the American writer Henry James.

In later life Ford lived with a much younger artist, Janice Biala, a New Yorker, born in Poland. Originally they met in Paris. From 1937 he took a part time post as a visiting lecturer in literature at Olivet College in Michigan. There he began to plan his last work, The March of Literature (1939). It was meant for general readers and explored what is valuable in literature, starting from ancient Egypt and China and continuing up to modern times. Noteworthy, the American writers Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain are not mentioned in the index, and he has very little to say about Stephen Crane, the author of the Red Badge of Courage: "the late Stephen Crane once with extreme violence declared to this writer that he had never, either in translation or in the original, read a word of any damn French writer of the realist school." (p. 829)

The first half of the book was written during the summer of 1937 in Michigan, where Ford stayed with his friends, the Southern writers Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon. He then went with Janice Biala, his last consort, to Paris and after return to Michigan in April 1938, he finished the work by July. Ford died at Deauville, France, on June 26, 1939. It is generally agreed that Ford's finest literary achievements were made as a novelist, but he also was significant as an editor who discovered and promoted new writers. Ford's own literary tastes were unpredictable and far from academic. He often considered critics hopelessly pompous or pedantic. In The March of Literature he wrote that Defoe was "an utterly humdrum writer", Dostoevsky "has the aspect of greatness of an enormously enlarged but misty statue of Sophocles", and the excitement in reading Joyce comes almost "entirely from his kill in juggling words as a juggler".

For further reading: Ford Madox Ford by Richard A. Cassell (1961); Ford Madox Ford: The Essence of His Art by R.W. Lid (1964); The Limited Hero in the Novels of Ford Madox Ford by Norman Leer (1966); The Life and Work of Ford Madox Ford by F. McShane (1965); Ford Madox Ford by C.G. Hoffman (1967); The Saddest Story by A. Mizener (1971); Critical Essays on Ford Madox Ford, ed. R.A. Cassell (1987), Ford Madox Ford by A. Judd (1990); Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life by M. Saunders (1996); The Art of Ford Madox Ford by Kenneth Bendiner (1997); Ford Madox Ford: A Reappraisal, ed. Robert Hampson and Tony Davenport (2001); Ford Madox Ford and the Regiment of Women: Violet Hunt, Jean Rhys, Stella Bowen, Janice Biala by Joseph J. Wiesenfarth (2005); Ford Madox Ford and the City, ed. Sara Haslam (2006); Ford Madox Ford and America, edited by Sara Haslam and Seamus O'Malley (2012); Ford Madox Ford: a Dual Life by Max Saunders (2 vols., 2012); Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End: the first World War, Culture, and Modernity, edited by Ashley Chantler and Rob Hawkes (2014); Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier: Centenary Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Sara Haslam (2015) 

Selected works:

  • The Brown Owl, 1891 (two illustrations by F. Madox Brown)
  • The Feather, 1892
  • The Shifting of the Fire, 1892 (with J. Conrad)
  • The Questions at the Well, 1893 (as Fenil Haig)
  • The Queen Who Flew, 1894
  • Ford Madox Ford, 1896
  • The Cinque Ports, 1900
  • Poems for Pictures and Notes for Music, 1900
  • The Inheritors, 1901 (with J. Conrad)
  • Rossetti, 1902
  • Romance, 1903 (with J. Conrad)
    - film: The Road to Romance, 1927, dir. by John S. Robertson, starring Ramon Novarro, Marceline Day, Marc McDermott, Roy D'Arcy, Cesare Gravina
  • The Face of Night, 1904
  • The Benefactor, 1905
  • The Soul of London, 1905
  • Hans Holbein, 1905
  • The Heart of the Country, 1906
  • Christina's Fairy Book, 1906
  • The Fifth Queen, 1906
  • Privy Seal, 1907
  • From Inland, 1907
  • An English Girl, 1907
  • The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1907
  • The Spirit of the People, 1907
  • The Fifth Queen Crowned, 1908
  • Mr. Apollo, 1908
  • The "Half Moon," 1909
  • Songs from London, 1910
  • A Call, 1910
  • The Portrait, 1910
  • High Germany, 1911
  • Ladies Whose Bright Eyes, 1911 (rev. ed. as Daniel Chaucer, 1935)
  • The Simple Life Limited, 1911 (as Daniel Chaucer)
  • The Critical Attitude, 1911
  • Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections, 1911
  • The New Humpty-Dumpty, 1912 (as Daniel Chaucer)
  • The Panel, 1912 (rev. ed. Ring for Nancy, 1913)
  • Collected Poems, 1913
  • Henry James: A Critical Study 1913
  • The Desirable Alien, 1913 (with V. Hunt)
  • The Young Lovell, 1913
  • Mr. Fleight, 1914
  • Antwerp, 1914
  • Between St. Dennis and St. George, 1915
  • When Blood is their Argument, 1915
  • The Good Soldier, 1915
    - TV film: 1981, by Kevin Billington, starring Robin Ellis, Vickery Turner, Jeremy Brett, Susan Fleetwood, Elizabeth Garvie
    - Kelpo sotilas (suom. Paavo Lehtonen, 1970)
  • Zeppelin Nights, 1916 (with V. Hunt)
  • The Trial of Barbarians by P. Loti, 1917 (translator) 
  • On Heaven, and Poems Written on Active Service, 1918
  • A House, 1921
  • Thus to Revisit, 1921
  • Mr. Bosphorus and the Music, 1923
  • The Nature of Crime, 1923 (with J. Conrad)
  • The Marsden Case, 1923
  • Women and Men, 1923
  • Some Do Not, 1924 (Parade's End)
    - TV Mini-series 2012, directed by Susanna White, written by Tom Stoppard, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Roger Allam, Adelaide Clemens, Rupert Everett, Janet McTeer 
  • Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance 1924
  • No More Parades, 1925 (Parade's End)
    - TV Mini-series 2012, directed by Susanna White, written by Tom Stoppard, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Roger Allam, Adelaide Clemens, Rupert Everett, Janet McTeer 
  • A Man Could Stand Up, 1926 (Parade's End)
    - TV Mini-series 2012, directed by Susanna White, written by Tom Stoppard, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Roger Allam, Adelaide Clemens, Rupert Everett, Janet McTeer 
  • A Mirror to France, 1924
  • New Poems, 1927
  • New York Essays, 1927
  • New York Is Not America: Being a Mirror to the States, 1927
  • The Last Post, 1928 (Parade's End)
  • A Little Less Than Gods, 1928
  • No Enemy, 1929
  • The English Novel, 1929
  • When the Wicked Man, 1931
  • Return to Yesterday, 1931
  • The Rash Act, 1933
  • It Was the Nightingale, 1934
  • Henry for Hugh, 1934
  • Provence, 1935
  • Vive le Roy, 1936
  • Collected Poems, 1936 (with an introduction by William Rose Benét)
  • Mightier Than the Sword, 1937
  • The Great Trade Route, 1937
  • The March of Literature, 1938
  • Critical Writings, 1964 (ed. Frank MacShane)
  • Letters, 1965 (edited by Richard M. Ludwig)
  • Buckshee, 1966 (with introductions by Robert Lowell, Kenneth Rexroth)
  • Your Mirror to My Times, 1971 (ed. Michael Killigrew)
  • The Bodley Head Ford Madox Ford, 1962-1971 (5 vols.)
  • Pound/Ford, the Story of a Literary Friendship, 1982 (ed.Brita Lindberg-Seyersted)
  • The Ford Madox Ford Reader, 1986 (ed. Sondra J. Stang)
  • A History of Our Own Time, 1988 (edited by Solon Beinfeld and Sondra J. Stang)
  • The Correspondence of Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen, 1993 (edited by Sondra J. Stang and Karen Cochran)
  • A Literary Friendship: Correspondence Between Caroline Gordon & Ford Madox Ford, 1999 (edited by Brita Lindberg-Seyersted)
  • War Prose, 2004 (ed. Max Saunders)
  • The Good Soldier: Authoritative Text, Textual Appendices, Contemporary Reviews, Literary Impressionism, Biographical and Critical Commentary, 2012 (2nd ed., edited by Martin Stannard)

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